Prof. Zvi Zohar
My major research interestis, the history and development of Halakha. Within this wide realm, I have a special interest in the halakhic creativity of hakhamim (rabbis) of Jewish communities in the modern Middle East and North Africa, and it is held by many of my peers that my work in this area has been pioneering and innovative. I have also I have researched major issues in the history of halakha, such as the topic of giyyur and the topic of treatment of deviance, jointly with Prof. Avi Sagi. In addition, I have written articles on other sundry issues in halakha.
A secondary research area is, aspects of Jewish life in the modern Middle East; I have devoted a book and several articles to this area.
Major Research Activities and Achievements
Already as a high-school student, my interactions with Sephardic/Mizrahi individuals and synagogues impressed me as reflecting a religious culture significantly different from that of European Jewry. Over time, I intuited that an excellent key to better understand that culture might be found in the writings of the Hakhamim of these communities in which they responded to the challenges of modernity, and especially in their halakhic works. Upon completion of my service in the IDF I devoted several years to study in a Yeshiva Gevoha (advanced academy of Torah learning), and then took my B.A. in Ben Gurion University, majoring in General Philosophy and in Jewish History. I noticed that both in the Yeshiva and in the University, no attention was devoted to study or research of works composed by Middle Eastern or North African Hakhamim in modern times (19th-20th centuries). I determined to follow the dictum of Hillel (Avot 2:5) b’maqomsh-einanashim, hishtadellihiotish. So as to enrich my ability to tackle this matter from several aspects, I decided to pursue my graduate studies at the multidisciplinary Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University. My M.A. thesis focused on the halakhic responses of Egyptian rabbis to the challenges of modernity (1882-1922), and my Ph.D. compared additional aspects of the Egyptian rabbis’ halakhic responses to modernity with the responses of Syrian rabbis to similar modern issues.
This general topic has continued to fascinate me during my entire academic career. This is reflected in my booksTradition and Change – Halakhic Responses of Middle Eastern Rabbis to Legal and Technological Change (1993), The Luminous Face of the East – Studies in the Legal and Religious Thought of Sephardic Rabbis of the Middle East (2001) and Rabbinic Creativity in the Modern Middle East (2013); in the volumes I edited Studies in the Halakhic and Religious Thought of Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi(2007) (with Avi Sagi) and Rabbi Uzziel and his Contemporaries: Law, Leadership and Values (2009), and in tens of articles I have published since the early 1980’s until now. These books and articles are pioneering and path-blazing works, in which I have had the privilege of enriching the field of Jewish Studies by placing the previously neglected and overlooked halakhic creativity of Sephardic/Mizrahi rabbis of modern times on the map of Jewish Cultural and Religious Studies. It might be said that as a result, there was now exists a sub-field of Jewish Studies that previously was non-existent. One upshot of this is, that from time to time I am invited to write articles that survey the general development of Sephardic/Mizrahi halakhic writing, as may be seen from the attached list of publications.
In the course of my work on Sephardic rabbis, I have of course taken great interest into the social, religious and historical aspects of the milieu in which they acted and wrote, i.e., the Jewish communities in Islamic lands in modern times. This has led to the writing of works that deal with social and historical (non-halakhic) issues, such as my book A Social Drama in Aleppo (a study in the social dynamics of a Jewish community in Syria during the French Mandate) (2002) and several articles over the years.
In addition to my interest in the works of Sephardic/Mizrahi hakhamim and in aspects of life in their communities, I am also interested in the general field of the history and development of halakha. The inter-disciplinary approach I acquired during my graduate studies has led me to seek collaboration with peers from other disciplines. Thus, Prof. Avi Sagi and I engaged in ground-breaking research on the development of the halakha concerning giyyur from Late antiquity to the present, resulting in two major books: Conversion to Judaism and the Meaning of Jewish Identity (1994) and Transforming Identity (2007) and several joint articles; in addition I have independently written several articles on this topic. These books and articles were poorly received by conservative halakhic circles, who were/are unhappy that the multivocality of halakhic sources of giyyur be made known.
Another book I wrote together with Prof. Sagi is Circles of Jewish Identity – A Study in Halakhic Literature (2000), devoted to the developments and changes in halakhic attitudes towards radical deviance from halakhic norms (public desecration of the Shabbat). In this book we also developed the “Model of the Five Communites” that halakhic decisors take into account when forming halakhic positions, and made use of studies in the Sociology of Deviance to better understand and analyze changes in rabbinic positions re public desecration of the Shabbat in modern times characterized by increasing Jewish secularization.